Technical Wizards | An Interview with Bent Knee

Rich-Ferri 01

photo by Rich Ferri

by Jacob Unterreiner

All of the musicians in Bent Knee are technical wizards.

What’s more impressive than their wizardry however is the fact that they use their skills responsibly. Sure, they’re are virtuosic elements to many songs on the band’s third album, Land Animal, but they always serve the music. I could go on for paragraphs, describing, in detail, everything I love about Bent Knee’s music, but I’ll leave it at this– Bent Knee is the truth. If you haven’t listened to them, please do so right now.

I was fortunate enough to recently chat with front woman and keyboardist, Courtney Swain, as well as guitarist Ben Levin, ahead of their upcoming show at Valley Bar on June 20th.

Jacob Unterreiner: Ben, on your Youtube channel, I saw a video where Courtney broke down her vocal technique. From the outside, it seems as if the two of you have a really rich educational relationship. So I’m curious, Ben, what is one important thing you’ve learned from Courtney? And, Courtney, what is one important thing you’ve learned from Ben?

Ben Levin: It’s absolutely true [that we have a rich educational relationship]. I’ve learned a lot from Courtney. There’s a lot of little musical things about how a piano part could be better, or arrangement concepts– specific things like that. One thing I’ve learned that is more significant– since we’ve been collaborating since 2009– is I’ve learned how two people’s musical dynamic can consistently change and evolve.

I’ve gotten to watch Courtney evolve, and she’s watched me evolve. We’re not the same musicians we were before and we’ve been together every step of the way. Having a long collaborative relationship taught me not only are we making music, but the music is making us.

Do you think watching her change has made you more aware of the ways in which you’ve changed?

Ben: Absolutely. I think it’s exactly that. Working with Courtney helps me appreciate I’ve improved as well. I think both of us would agree– and you can tell me if I’m wrong, Courtney– we both look back at the way we made music when we first started and we see it as this primitive, reckless, inefficient thing that wasn’t really sustainable. Now, I feel like we’re both more musically open, and we take better care of ourselves while making music, which makes it possible to take the music even further.

And then, Courtney, what’s something you’ve learned from Ben after all these years?

Courtney Swain: Well, this is a really nice question, and what Ben said was very nice. I grew up in an environment where there were a lot of preconceptions about the way things should be, like if you’re going to doctor, you don’t wear tattered jeans– judgemental things like that.

I think I had a mentality in line with that when I started pursuing music a little more seriously. Thinking about what’s a correct idea versus what’s an incorrect idea. I learned those preconceptions aren’t practical, and they’re just kind of a stupid concept.

In Ben’s Youtube channel, I’ve seen a lot of videos about how it doesn’t matter where the inspiration comes from, you can sort of turn any feeling or subject into a piece of art that is really compelling.

Another thing is Ben’s hunger to make art is really inspiring. Right now, I’m actually having a hard time with that. We just had a bunch of shows, and then we were in the studio.

Coming off that, when I have weeks where I have time to myself, I have a hard time channeling that time into creative stuff. I end up doing a lot of maintenance and a lot of admin work. Ben is really good at channeling energy into creating, so I’m always thinking about, “Oh man, how can I make more?”

In this process, I’ve also learned Ben and I create at very different tempos. Ben is really good at putting out work consistently, and I’ve learned I work in spurts. Both are fine! I mean as long as you’re making stuff and you’re happy. From our relationship I’ve learned I’m not a bad creator just because I’m not able to make stuff every day.

In an article which gave an overview of your new album, Land Animal, Chris Baum (the band’s violinist) said, “Music is the most efficient way to get a point across.” I’d like to get your thoughts on that statement.

Ben: I think it’s efficient for certain kinds of points. It’s efficient for pre-verbal points. We have a lot of pre-verbal thoughts which are forgotten and lost because the second words come in, the words are so strong and so powerfully linked to objective [and] semantic meaning, they replace the murky glaze of pre-verbal thoughts. Pre-verbal thoughts are the moment where you want to say something– like you’re in a conversation and you want to say something, but you don’t necessarily know what you’re going to say yet.

Or they’re like when you see a pretty sunset, and you immediately feel this physical feeling which then becomes “pretty,” and once you have the word “pretty,” it clamps down on the meaning. If I tell you, “Hey, I saw a pretty sunset,” you’re going to get such a cheapened version of what I actually felt, because that word is used to describe flowers, or even things you don’t think are pretty. It’s such a broad adjective.

When you want to express the thoughts that come before the words, music is amazing at that. Music helps you capture that in a bottle. You’re taken back to all these memories of pre-verbal thoughts. When I hear 90s radio hits, I feel myself building legos again. I feel myself being a kid in my room. Or I smell my dog. Music is incredibly effective at sharing those kinds of thoughts.

There’s no way to say, “This is what I mean, so now you know exactly what I’m trying to say.” It’s not nearly as efficient as semantic language if you need two to people agree on a formula, or if you need to teach someone how to build a car. You can’t teach someone how to build a car with sound. But if you want to share the exact shade of blue you saw with someone, it’s more efficient to use sound than adjectives.

Ben, in the band Q&A video you recently uploaded, you were answering a question about existential dread, and you said, “Everything that is now, won’t be later.” Is the fear of that looming loss part of what motivates you to capture particular moments of your life in music?

Ben: Courtney do you want to take that one? Because you just wrote a song about that?

Courtney: Sure. I don’t know if the fear of loss is what motivates me to write per se. But for me, writing is definitely a way to cope with your loss. We were just working on a new song, and I was trying to outline my feelings about that. It’s been a common theme in our music.

Going back to our first album we had a song about the inevitability of loss. I’ve written about that in my solo output. And I know it’s a theme on Ben’s upcoming album as well. I don’t think it’s what motivates me, so much as I just find it therapeutic to write. Something I’ve noticed in my own writing is I have a hard time taking myself out of my music. A lot of the stuff I write is in first person, and a lot of it is semi-autobiographical. Music for me has been a tool to cope with the anxiety and fear I have in my life.

Courtney, judging by the interviews I’ve seen you do, you think critically about music education, and you’re also someone who plays piano and sings, so I thought you’d be the perfect person to ask this question to. Why do you think vocal instruction is so closely tied to the piano? And do you think there is a better instrument, or a better method that could be adopted?

Courtney: Do you mean when you’re learning vocals, why is it always with a piano?

Yeah. Certain vocal techniques, like slides, or runs, aren’t easily duplicated on the piano, and pianos are not very portable, which has always bothered me.

Courtney: Wow. That’s a really interesting question. I definitely have thoughts on that. I think the reason people use a piano is because it is the most common instrument lying around. And in a classroom setting, there is always a keyboard.

The way music is thought of is usually, music versus vocalist or music plus vocalist. There’s not a lot chorale music where the vocals are truly engrained, are truly a part of the accompaniment. I mean, maybe there’s some Philip Glass pieces or a Meredith Monk piece that does that. I think the way [vocals are] taught is a chicken and egg situation.

I think there a lot of other great instruments which vocals could be taught on. So much of vocal instruction becomes about the right pitch, and then maybe how not to hurt yourself. Not enough attention is paid to articulation or timbre. Most vocalists are left to their own devices to develop those things. You can change your tone and how you sound A LOT with articulation and timbre.

I think a really good way to learn vocals would simply be to go to any great instrumentalist, it doesn’t have to be a voice teacher or a piano teacher. I think a voice is really close to a trumpet in terms of its range and approaching notes. You can hear that in scat singing in a lot of bebop. I think working with any talented instrumentalist who is playing a single line, one note at a time, can teach you a lot about how the notes are coming out.

Ben: The comparison to the trumpet is really cool. When people sing they don’t think about music in the same way as they do when they’re holding an instrument. They’re are advantages to that, there are some things you do more purely because of that actually. There is a certain directness between your ear, your audiation, and the music.

On the flip side, they’re is a certain freedom people feel when using an instrument to do certain kinds of lines and jumps, to express growls and articulations people are more reserved about when they’re using their voice They’re more confident to go RAWRAAAHHHDADUE on a trumpet, but not when singing. That sort of social hindrance doesn’t exist in instrument playing as much as it does in singing.

Awesome! Moving into some questions about the album, you guys have a trademark lurching rhythm which occurs in several places throughout the record. It sounds a little like a drunk animal on stilts, or an animal learning how to walk. Was that an intentional nod to the land animal concept? Where a creature is moving from water to land, learning how to walk instead of swim.

Ben: You hit the nail on the head with the stylistic continuity of that. We very intentionally included that rhythm on the album. It wasn’t an attempt to mimic animals, consciously at least. It was more an exploration of D’Angelo, Kendrick Lamar, Dilla, people like that.

In that moment, from 2015 to mid 2017 a lot of artists outside of hip-hop and R&B started appreciating, finally, that rhythmic characteristic. You started seeing an outpouring of bands taking what is known as the “Dilla beat,” or the “drunk beat,” and using it in a wide variety of genres. I just thought it was the coolest thing ever, and I still do! But I realized I was not alone in my appreciation. [Laughs] It was a total trend.

The way I see it is it’s almost the rhythmic counterpart to microtonality. Just like there’s been all sorts of music with melodies outside the 12 western notes, there’s this rhythmic tradition of unquantized, organic rhythms which have been passed down orally. I think there is a really cool connection between the evolution of our species and these beats. Which isn’t something we were thinking about when we were writing, but it’s something I’ve been thinking about recently.

Because of modern recording technology, where you can essentially notate something by playing it, it doesn’t need to be read, it can be heard. Now I think it opens the door for a lot of these rhythms to exist in any genre.

bent knee 03The album ends with about 20 seconds of solo drums, which is jarring considering the album is so loud and layered. What was the conceptual purpose behind that decision?

Courtney: The last song, “Boxes,” is about mortality, and memory. Which, going back to your previous question, is about things that will cease to be. The ending functions as a heartbeat. The drums are just pulsing in a simple groove, I mean it’s difficult in its simplicity because it is an exercise in focus. When we play that song live, it ends up being a very meditative environment. Each note is heavy, and you really feel the time each beat is taking.

The analogy is sort of a human body which is starting to fail. Whether it be your athleticism, or your memory, or your health, everything is just fading away. The heartbeat keeps pumping until it stops at the very end. I really like the ending.

We played an acoustic show, and for the purpose of the arrangement, we ended the song with the solo violin melody instead of the drums. Our producer/synth player/sound designer, Vince, doesn’t play our acoustic shows with us, so he was sitting in the audience. When our drummer stopped playing, he looked over at Vince during the violin part, and Vince just started shaking is head in disapproval.

So many of our songs are so much about the story and the analogy behind the music, so the ending sounded better acoustically with the violin, but it kind of ruined the point of the song.

Ben: Yeah, if the world ends, it wouldn’t end with a pretty violin melody, it would end with a fading drum. A slow march toward death [laughs].

Last question. Courtney, in your interview with Make Weird Music, you said you lived in Japan, and in high school, two of the main things you did for fun were bowling and karaoke. I was wondering, do you think there is an alternate universe where Courtney Swain is a professional bowler?

Courtney: [Laughs] I don’t think so. I started playing piano at such a young age. I never really got into sports. My parents wanted to keep me away from anything that might damage my fingers. If there was an alternate universe where I did become a professional bowler, or did any sort of sport, I would have started when I was young, and not when I was playing for fun in high school!


Check out Ticketfly to purchase tickets for Bent Knee with Gatherers at Valley Bar on June 20. 


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